Mary Rezac, this article "The Catholic Church desperately needs artists." deserves a response. To be totally honest I admit my initial reaction was, “Hello!! Where have you been, Church? What took you so long?” But I truly appreciate the article, perspectives and examples you’ve shared. Thank you for writing this! I hope it’s just the beginning, for, in addition to calling artists, St Pope John Paul II called for a renewed dialogue between artists and the Church - a renewed cooperation. And this, even more than the artists themselves, is what is still so glaringly absent, so desperately needed. I am an artist who responded to PJPII’s Letter to Artists, who committed himself to the pursuit of art, and answered the call the late Holy Father issued, which you have restated on behalf of the Church. But as the title of your article is “The Catholic Church desperately needs artists”, I would respond, “Catholic Artists DESPERATELY need the Church - to step up and acknowledge her role in this COOPERATION”. And let me be clear, I’m speaking to you, the laity, because it’s not going to come down from the top.
What am I talking about? A few points to consider:
1. The call to be a Catholic artist. The vocation to beauty is a call to make good, even extraordinary art. A true vocation (small v, not a primary vocation), it demands a total commitment. Without this total commitment, there simply won’t be extraordinary art. Imagine an olympic athlete who also had a regular career, or even a side job, working enough hours to support himself and his training (no sponsors). How about supporting a family also? Where would he get all the extra hours? Could he honestly be an extraordinary athlete? Imagine a pro athlete - working, training, and trying to maintain peak performance - who made maybe $5 - $10 an hour. Add a wife and five kids. Not possible. Now, consider that an artist trains and practices for 10-15 years before his art is really good enough to sell consistently. Remember, we're talking about total-vocational-commitment art (<1%), not hobby art (>99%).Then there’s the fact that the education and training to be a master artist is far more elusive than to be a master athlete. The point is that we have elaborate support systems to provide training, supplies, expenses, and careers for athletes - most of whom never make it - and there’s literally nothing for Catholic artists. (If anyone finds a Catholic org that actually provides support for artists rather than asking for money to support their own project, please email me directly. Thank you.)
So the Church is calling artists, but where are these artists supposed to come from? How are Catholic artists to rise above even this simple training issue alone? Athletes didn’t create the systems that support them. They exist because the systems exists. (Sponsors, patrons, visionaries, producers please step forward.)
2. A career path. If the Catholic artist does clear the training hurdle, and reaches a high level of competence, recognition, and is ready to make a go at a Catholic art career, what then? What does the Catholic art industry look like? Wait a minute…is there a Catholic art industry? Hmmm, I can find reproductions from dead artists, gift shop items, Catholic bookstores. I can find refurbished and reclaimed statuary and liturgical items. I can find a few art studios in Chicago, Italy and Latin America and some icons. Then there are the liturgical art firms, but where are their artists? Who are their artists? Do they represent artists? ARTIST REPRESENTATION - Woh!, a concept that every artistic industry has employed for what?…100+ years? Actors have agents, musicians have record labels and many new resources, secular fine artists have galleries, museums, art associations, contests, grants, magazines, conventions, etc, etc, etc. Every crazy little art niche out there has a convention, websites, and sponsors, but professional resources are all but non-existent for Catholic artists. There are a couple of fledgling Catholic arts non profits that I think want to promote Catholic art, but getting off the ground is their first job. I did get an email last week about a Catholic art gallery that may soon open, and I just came across a NY gallery, HillStream, that actually represents Catholic artists. Bravo! The first I’ve seen. (Representation and promotional agencies are so needed.)
3. A broken system. So, it’s not ideal, or at all feasible, but God will provide a way. The artist decides to go for it. What’s next? After his own attempts at self promotion (maybe WYD vendor booth, local conferences, expensive and completely unproductive Catholic newspaper ads, Catholic bookstores, articles, website, print on demand service, selling reproductions at local churches, Catholic mom blogs - “Hey, stop! I’m supposed to be making art, I don’t have time for marketing! My skills are already slipping. I need to be behind the easel 30+ hours a week! ‘Lord, help me!’” Then a trickle of emails and phone calls - some commissions! Well, most are just talk, but a few pan out….kinda. Here are the problems with commission work:
Money: PJPII’s Letter to Artists instructs artists not to be concerned about profit, but, rather, focused on beauty. So our artist quotes a reasonable estimate for his time. The parish (client) responds with, “we can only do about half that.” The artist agrees anyway, thinking, “I’ll just have to work twice as hard and fast. But I cannot compromise beauty, because my true clients are the Holy Spirit and the generations of faithful who will see this.” (Proper artist representation, who could have quoted Economic Justice for All to the client, might have been a big help here. An artist can’t argue for himself. It’s not just unprofessional. There’s a lot of artist stereotypes in the way.) At this point, any money is better than nothing. But the Holy Spirit is the absolute toughest client, and the artwork takes quadruple the time and work covered by the price. “Oh well, I’ll offer it in reparation. At least the artwork is my best work,” thinks the artist. And it is very well received. So much so that it leads to more commissions, but the same scenario repeats. It’s not sustainable.
Liturgical Design Firms: The highest profile commissions, often handled by liturgical design and architecture firms, may ask the artist not to publish the artwork in any other form. “Okay, that keeps it extra special, only seen in the chapel itself, although I could have maybe made some extra money”, thinks the artist. What’s more, the artist’s name is never mentioned at the dedication, or anywhere on any piece of literature about the project. Is that even ethical? The invention of liturgical design firms obviously didn’t follow the model of every other industry in artist representation. These other billion dollar industries know the value of advertising and featuring their talent. The extreme protectionism in Catholic art means no career building for the artist, and he still doesn't make a living wage for the hours put in. Worst of all, current liturgical design and architecture firms view sacred art as “trimmings” (I’m quoting a Catholic architect in a presentation given at a Catholic school.) Now you may think my ego as an artist is just pricked, but that’s not it. You see, a “trimming” is a final decoration, an afterthought. But you don’t design a book and get the whole table of contents, cover, title, chapter names, and everything completely done - before writing the content! Pope Benedict said,"...Sacred images, with their beauty, are also a Gospel proclamation and express the splendor of the Catholic truth...",and described great works of art as "a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God." I’m not pitting art against architecture! That would be silly, ridiculous, and fruitless distraction. I’m merely advocating a true understanding of sacred art. What I’m saying is the whole integrated vision must evolve together. This article is about bringing back mastery in art and getting beyond the uninspiring but maybe technically decent current wave of artwork. Our Holy Fathers spoke of beauty and great art. Most people today don't understand how great the chasm is between having even masterful artistic skills and producing great, beautiful art. The skills are only tools. A Catholic artist is as much a visionary as a technician. The current state of Catholic art is like deciding I want to create a poem, deciding the subject, the length, the style, the name, and then (at the last minute and within a remnant budget) hiring somebody who can rhyme to write it. It’s not poetry! It’s not art!!! Your article mentioned it - “Fear.” I suspect Bishops, rectors, or project managers are more comfortable dealing with a liturgical design firm than directly with an artist. The problem is that currently this makes it absolutely impossible to ever achieve the kind of artwork and integrated artistic-architectural vision achieved in past centuries - and it’s not because the Catholic artist doesn’t exist. The firms don’t seem to understand his role, his contribution, and the ideal creative process. Maybe it’s an overly left-brained process, or concern about time, budget, and efficiency has just peaked? Compared to the 70+ years dedicated to the great cathedrals of the past it seems ridiculously restrictive and closed to any Spirit of inspiration. Our modern bottom-line emphasis on practical concerns makes exceptional art and architecture obsolete - forever squeezed out unless radical mindset change happens. So many business minded heads steering what isn’t a business matter. What if that happened with the Liturgy?
It’s ironic those so concerned with practical factors and financial ‘stewardship’ haven’t connected the fact that when PJPII’s Letter called artists not to be concerned with profit, but with beauty, and indicated it was the artist who’s vocation is beauty, he was also speaking to them, the commissioners of the artwork. The client (the firm, the pastor, the parish manager) simply can’t be 99% concerned with price and deadline and also be paying heed to the late Holy Father’s words. PJPII called for cooperation.
4. New systems. So when the artist has struggled through all of this and has accomplished works which are now prominently, although maybe anonymously, displayed at some of our nations greatest shrines, then things should work out…? Shouldn’t they? Well…nope. All this activity sure helped the artist develop his work and artistic vision, but there’s no career development to keep it going. To continue with underpaying Catholic commissions would mean starvation. Print sales don’t support a career unless you are all about reproductions. But, for the Catholic artist who’s dedicated to the Church's true vision of art, reproductions aren’t themselves actually art, and they represent an ideological problem related to our Walmart-minded society. (brief Ad: Hey, I should mention here, that you can get a hand painted reproduction of this artist’s most popular work at paintingandframe.com! Best seller! Straight from China! What a deal! It’s production is of course breaking federal and international copyright laws, but that’s kinda like cheating on taxes anyway. Ahhh, reproductions! - almost like real art, but without supporting the artist!)
Luckily our artist was also doing secular artwork and has reached the point of winning awards and being represented by a top fine art gallery. So he can focus his effort there and possibly catch up…Possibly. Being a faithful Catholic he may now have a spouse and a handful of kids. He went into the hole with all but one Catholic project which actually paid the quoted price! (“Thank you, St Stanislaus! I love you!”) But without owning a house, having a proper studio, and after moving 5 or 10 times in the past decade, a Catholic artist may have too much debt and responsibility to be able to catch up. If he stayed single, it might be doable. But if he has a family, it’s not a good scenario. He gave what are usually the greatest career and home establishing years to develop his talents and vision (without really getting paid). And perhaps he succeeded even way beyond his own expectations. (Thanks be to God for such a faithful return on the investment of talents!) But the cooperation of the Church JPII mentioned is nowhere to be seen. He’s on his own in a great catch-22. Battling to pay the bills on a week-to-week (forget month-to-month) basis and tapped out asking for help form everywhere and everyone else, discouragement is his biggest enemy. And the greatest discouragement - 20 plus years of developing talents resulting in terrific artistic success, but, so hindered by financial weight, there’s no way to practice and realize the artistic vision he now has. At the top of his game, there is nowhere to play! If only the Church would pay a fair wage for his artwork. Ouch, that sounds harsh! But it’s only meant to be honest and illustrate a point. You see, it’s not the particular client’s fault. It’s more complicated. There is much misunderstanding the value of original art, what good art is, the lack of artist representation, and the church’s responsibilities to Catholic artists,…and there is simply what people choose to pay for. The clients are just trying to be prudent and run a parish. And, well, that’s not going to change. Parishes aren’t loaded. It would help some to have education about fine art and stop the ordering of shlock from catalogs and studios who only have in-house artists and reproductions; but parishes, even dioceses, still wouldn't pay for the full artistic vision that they really need. Other ideas need to come into play here - a new paradigm. Sponsors, for example. Artists create images. The artistic process is interesting to people. Images and video rule the internet. They dominate marketing. How many reality tv shows now show somebody making something or remodeling? There are growing movements around hand-made stuff - the Brooklyn Artisan Movement, the Maker Movement, the Handmade Movement. We have the epitome of interesting content here - sacred fine art. Beauty. How many great artworks could be accomplished on just one movie or tv show budget? The art would last forever. Churches would keep it. Sponsors could continue to use the images. The artists would gain recognition and endorse the sponsors. Movies and shows would generate the revenue to pay the artists far more than they would normally make (even if it be far less than what leading actors make… forget I said that). Producers would make money, not just donate it. In the end the imagery would have far greater reach than just a painting in a parish church. It would reach a wide secular audience. The digital culture offers possibilities. Why aren’t we doing things like this? How many people, non-Catholics, go to St. Peter’s just to see the art and architecture? The vatican museum? I stood in line for hours! It doesn't have to be a "religious" movie. It doesn't have to try to evangelize. That's the downfall of so many christian films. Beauty, truth, and goodness are witness enough. (Film producers please step up. Put out a call to Catholic artists. Just an idea.)
5. Autonomy of the Catholic artist. Overcoming discouragement our artist focuses on secular fine art and looks to new platforms and media for continuing the task of developing a career. Realizing the total independence of the Catholic artist, his new endeavor is to use the digital platforms to meet the people where their eyes are - in their screens. Not as ideal as the in-person experience of original artwork, but there’s potential. Incidentally, the secular art market is no easy ride. The competition severe, the art world not well structured (although hugely better than the barely-existent Catholic art world), the amount of focus required to build a career and pay for educating his children could take Catholic art off his plate for a decade or two… Assuming he survives… without any medical needs… and maybe the kids all get scholarships.
6. The Church’s ball. In conclusion, if the Church needs artists, then the Church needs to do something! I simply must use another analogy. I fully understand that priests are more crucial than artists, but you and the Church have acknowledged the desperate need for Catholic artists. Let’s say priests had to support themselves and provide for their seminary education. No outside sponsors exist, unless they beg family or friends on their own accord. And, oh, in this scenario there aren’t any physical seminaries. Seminarians have to put together a master education based on old saint books, their own spiritual exercises and solo discernment, Mass videos, articles, and possibly friends or other mentors. They need to scrap together ALL the necessary training that normally comes from the seminary on their own, while providing for themselves financially. They also have to recognize the good training from the false seminary groups. Miraculously, they make it to ordination. Now they have to market themselves, website, blog, phone, whatever, on their own, until parishes start calling them to offer Mass or other sacraments. They get paid per sacrament, no expenses, no travel time, no guarantee they’ll be hired again. Just contracted one sacrament at a time. No benefits. No retirement… No. Let’s say the priest can’t hold down a regular side job because he puts so much time and energy into being a priest, but what he makes per sacrament doesn’t cover all his expenses. His apartment, car, clothes, etc are pretty shabby, but boy, what a priest! Now let’s add a wife and handful of kids for him to support. There you go - just like a Catholic artist! As I said, the Church, the laity, needs to do something if there is a need for artists. If even some of the great obstacles to being a Catholic artist were removed, we would have more artists than we could handle. I understand there are problems. First and foremost, how do you support good artists and not just throw money at some slackers? Art education for students and aspiring artists, as well as education for what beauty in art actually is (how to recognize a good painting when you see it) is a key and important need. I am currently creating an online academy of painting myself for these reasons. But auditions, juried shows, and other things can help. We need improved understanding of the Catholic art market, Catholic artist representation, support services, advertising, media, and foundations (that already have funding and are looking to support or invest) … oh and perhaps artist debt relief.
Historically, the artist has often been taken advantage of by the various art industries. We, the Catholic Church, can make an improvement. Something to remember here is that if an artist has dedicated his life to art and fully committed many years, then he isn’t going to be able to pay for a bunch of support services and marketing any more than a priest could pay to assemble his own personal seminary or build his own parish out of his pocket. These services genuinely need to support artists, not attempt to be built on their backs. Artists won’t show up to participate in systems designed to milk them. People with real expertise in talent management, media production, museum exhibition, web development, sales, marketing, brand identity, social media, etc need to address the problems of the would-be Catholic art world. Revenue generating systems that benefit artist and investor need to be created and implemented, and then artists will jump up. A priest recently told me, “We live in an ugly world.” Indeed we’ve created a beauty starved culture that would probably embrace the heck out of the beautiful imagery these systems would generate. But creating them isn’t the job of the clergy (although your advice, guidance and counsel is invaluable). It isn't the job of artists. This won’t happen unless the laity steps up. PJPII’s Letter to Artists is not only for artists.
Mary Rezac, I sincerely thank you, again, for the article!